Why is there something instead of nothing? In other words: Why does the universe exist (and why are we in it)? Philosopher and writer Jim Holt follows this question toward three possible answers. Or four. Or none.
Jim Holt – Philosopher and Writer
Why does the universe exist? Why is there — Okay. Okay. This is a cosmic mystery. Be solemn. Why is there a world, why are we in it, and why is there something rather than nothing at all? I mean, this is the super ultimate “why” question?
So I’m going to talk about the mystery of existence, the puzzle of existence, where we are now in addressing it, and why you should care, and I hope you do care. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that those who don’t wonder about the contingency of their existence, of the contingency of the world’s existence, are mentally deficient. That’s a little harsh, but still.
So this has been called the most sublime and awesome mystery, the deepest and most far-reaching question man can pose. It’s obsessed great thinkers. Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was astonished that there should be a world at all. He wrote in his “Tractatus,” Proposition 4.66, “It is not how things are in the world that is the mystical, it’s that the world exists.”
And if you don’t like taking your epigrams from a philosopher, try a scientist. John Archibald Wheeler, one of the great physicists of the 20th century, the teacher of Richard Feynman, the coiner of the term “black hole,” he said, “I want to know how come the quantum, how come the universe, how come existence?” And my friend Martin Amis — sorry that I’ll be doing a lot of name-dropping in this talk, so get used to it — my dear friend Martin Amis once said that we’re about five Einsteins away from answering the mystery of where the universe came from. And I’ve no doubt there are five Einsteins in the audience tonight. Any Einsteins? Show of hands? No? No? No? No Einsteins? Okay.
So this question, why is there something rather than nothing, this sublime question, was posed rather late in intellectual history. It was towards the end of the 17th century, the philosopher Leibniz who asked it, a very smart guy, Leibniz, who invented the calculus independently of Isaac Newton, at about the same time, but for Leibniz, who asked why is there something rather than nothing, this was not a great mystery. He either was or pretended to be an Orthodox Christian in his metaphysical outlook, and he said it’s obvious why the world exists: because God created it. And God created, indeed, out of nothing at all. That’s how powerful God is. He doesn’t need any preexisting materials to fashion a world out of. He can make it out of sheer nothingness, creation ex nihilo. And by the way, this is what most Americans today believe. There is no mystery of existence for them. God made it.
So let’s put this in an equation. I don’t have any slides so I’m going to mime my visuals, so use your imaginations. So it’s God + nothing = the world.
Okay? Now that’s the equation. And so maybe you don’t believe in God. Maybe you’re a scientific atheist or an unscientific atheist, and you don’t believe in God, and you’re not happy with it. By the way, even if we have this equation, God + nothing = the world, there’s already a problem: Why does God exist? God doesn’t exist by logic alone unless you believe the ontological argument, and I hope you don’t, because it’s not a good argument. So it’s conceivable, if God were to exist, he might wonder, I’m eternal, I’m all-powerful, but where did I come from? Whence then am I? God speaks in a more formal English.
And so one theory is that God was so bored with pondering the puzzle of His own existence that He created the world just to distract himself. But anyway, let’s forget about God. Take God out of the equation: We have ________ + nothing = the world.
Now, if you’re a Buddhist, you might want to stop right there, because essentially what you’ve got is nothing = the world, and by symmetry of identity, that means the world = nothing. Okay? And to a Buddhist, the world is just a whole lot of nothing. It’s just a big cosmic vacuity. And we think there’s a lot of something out there but that’s because we’re enslaved by our desires. If we let our desires melt away, we’ll see the world for what it truly is, a vacuity, nothingness, and we’ll slip into this happy state of nirvana which has been defined as having just enough life to enjoy being dead. So that’s the Buddhist thinking.
But I’m a Westerner, and I’m still concerned with the puzzle of existence, so I’ve got ________ + — this is going to get serious in a minute, so — ________ + nothing = the world. What are we going to put in that blank? Well, how about science? Science is our best guide to the nature of reality, and the most fundamental science is physics. That tells us what naked reality really is, that reveals what I call TAUFOTU, the True And Ultimate Furniture Of The Universe. So maybe physics can fill this blank, and indeed, since about the late 1960s or around 1970, physicists have purported to give a purely scientific explanation of how a universe like ours could have popped into existence out of sheer nothingness, a quantum fluctuation out of the void. Stephen Hawking is one of these physicists, more recently Alex Vilenkin, and the whole thing has been popularized by another very fine physicist and friend of mine, Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a book called “A Universe from Nothing,” and Lawrence thinks that he’s given — he’s a militant atheist, by the way, so he’s gotten God out of the picture. The laws of quantum field theory, the state-of-the-art physics, can show how out of sheer nothingness, no space, no time, no matter, nothing, a little nugget of false vacuum can fluctuate into existence, and then, by the miracle of inflation, blow up into this huge and variegated cosmos we see around us.
Okay, this is a really ingenious scenario. It’s very speculative. It’s fascinating. But I’ve got a big problem with it, and the problem is this: It’s a pseudo-religious point of view. Now, Lawrence thinks he’s an atheist, but he’s still in thrall to a religious worldview. He sees physical laws as being like divine commands. The laws of quantum field theory for him are like fiat lux, “Let there be light.” The laws have some sort of ontological power or clout that they can form the abyss, that it’s pregnant with being. They can call a world into existence out of nothing. But that’s a very primitive view of what a physical law is, right? We know that physical laws are actually generalized descriptions of patterns and regularities in the world. They don’t exist outside the world. They don’t have any ontic cloud of their own. They can’t call a world into existence out of nothingness. That’s a very primitive view of what a scientific law is.